How The Day’s Carlos Virgen fell forward into digital journalism and an award-winning podcast

How The Day’s Carlos Virgen fell forward into digital journalism and an award-winning podcast

By Syd­ney Mazur, UConn Journalism
April 19, 2019

“I fell into this pro­fes­sion. I saw a need for data analy­sis, visu­al­iza­tion and social media strat­e­gy,” said Car­los Vir­gen, dig­i­tal news direc­tor at The Day in New Lon­don, Con­necti­cut. Pho­to from TheDay.com

Meet Car­los Vir­gen, the dig­i­tal news direc­tor at The Day in New Lon­don, Con­necti­cut. He is not your tra­di­tion­al jour­nal­ist. Orig­i­nal­ly from Cal­i­for­nia, Vir­gen stud­ied graph­ic design and worked in a law firm until one day a friend who pub­lished a Los Ange­les inde­pen­dent alt-week­ly hired him as an asso­ciate pub­lish­er design­ing advertisements.

He start­ed shoot­ing and edit­ing video while work­ing at  the Wal­la Wal­la Union-Bul­letin in Wash­ing­ton, and even­tu­al­ly expand­ed into cod­ing and social media. Half a dozen years lat­er, Vir­gen moved to the East Coast, bring­ing his exper­tise to The Day’s newsroom.

Res­i­dents of South­east­ern Con­necti­cut are the main audi­ence for The Day, Vir­gen said. With more and more peo­ple using social media to find and con­sume news, there is a younger demo­graph­ic of read­ers to reach. Vir­gen and his team at The Day real­ized they need­ed to shift their audi­ence strat­e­gy. Sub­scribers are the ulti­mate goal of any news orga­ni­za­tion. By iden­ti­fy­ing small­er groups of read­ers and tai­lor­ing spe­cif­ic cov­er­age — such as videos of high school foot­ball, bas­ket­ball and cheer­lead­ing com­pe­ti­tions — Vir­gen said The Day has been able to see notable increas­es in online readership.

Recent­ly, Vir­gen has been help­ing The Day exper­i­ment with new online audi­ence ini­tia­tives. The first is a project called “Curi­ousCT.” Read­ers send in the ques­tions they want answered, the audi­ence votes on their favorite, and the news­room reports that sto­ry. “It pro­vides a sense of own­er­ship to the pub­lic,” Vir­gen said, “to remind peo­ple that we’re here and lis­ten­ing to them.”

Vir­gen said as part of Curi­ousCT, his team tracks month­ly sub­scribers, cre­ates video pro­mo­tions, and pro­motes their projects on the Atlantic Broad­band network.

Vir­gen is also one of the prin­ci­pal pro­duc­ers of an award-win­ning orig­i­nal pod­cast series called “Case Unsolved.”  It tells the sto­ries of “unsolved mur­ders in Con­necti­cut and the fam­i­ly, friends, and law enforce­ment left with­out res­o­lu­tion.” The project was a labor-inten­sive col­lab­o­ra­tion between Vir­gen, mul­ti-media direc­tor Peter Huop­pi, three reporters and man­ag­ing edi­tors. It is the first nar­rat­ed pod­cast The Day has produced.

Togeth­er, the team sto­ry­board­ed the pod­cast, researched, record­ed, lis­tened to drafts, and after many attempts, found the best way to tell a dra­mat­ic audio sto­ry. The first unsolved case fea­tured in the pod­cast was from the 1980’s about a woman named Desiree Michaud. Vir­gen nar­rat­ed Michaud’s sto­ry in three parts, with a bonus con­clu­sion episode. Vir­gen said the team of jour­nal­ists ded­i­cat­ed extra time to explor­ing archives, track­ing down pho­tos and immers­ing them­selves in the his­to­ry of three unsolved cas­es to under­stand what hap­pened and explain the change to the local com­mu­ni­ty since the mur­der took place.

The result of their work is high­ly engag­ing. Vir­gen and his team paint­ed the scene of each crime vivid­ly — lis­ten­ing to the audio sto­ry makes you feel like you are there. The pod­cast starts with describ­ing Michaud and her artis­tic tal­ents and ambi­tions for her future, then takes the lis­ten­er to the scene of the crime, and final­ly lets us hear the New Lon­don community’s reac­tion to a shock­ing mur­der. Vir­gen said the pod­cast did not solve Michaud’s mur­der, but it did help bring back aware­ness to what had hap­pened in the 1980’s.

Dur­ing an Octo­ber 2018 inter­view with UConn Jour­nal­ism stu­dents, Vir­gen explained that when cre­at­ing the pod­cast, “the thing that has worked the best was to start with an out­line, ide­al­ly, before you even do the inter­views. Do some basic fac­tu­al report­ing to fig­ure out what we already know and what we want to put in and then go from there.”

Mul­ti­me­dia direc­tor Peter Huop­pi added that with the pop­u­lar­i­ty of crime pod­casts such as “Ser­i­al” and doc­u­men­taries like “Mak­ing a Mur­der­er,” the audi­ence was always fore­front. “True crime lis­ten­ers are always in the back of our mind, we have to give peo­ple some­thing. We can’t just end and then not have peo­ple go away with some­thing. Maybe not a res­o­lu­tion but at least a sense of who the per­son was. I’m try­ing to make a per­son­al con­nec­tion between the audi­ence and the reporter,” Huop­pi said.

Vir­gen’s advice to aspir­ing jour­nal­ists: “Be will­ing to grow your skill set.” Vir­gen said that being con­stant­ly curi­ous, data lit­er­ate, will­ing to find and crit­i­cal­ly ana­lyze the con­tent you’re cre­at­ing, will help you to “nev­er stop learn­ing in what­ev­er you do.”

Vir­gen said it’s also impor­tant to net­work. Fol­low and intro­duce your­self to as many con­tacts as pos­si­ble, he said. “The jour­nal­ism com­mu­ni­ty is open and will­ing to share knowl­edge,” said Virgen.

Top pho­to from The Day’s “Case Unsolved” pod­cast. Lis­ten here. Fol­low Car­los Vir­gen on Twit­ter at @carlosrvirgen


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